Burns may be a good Putinologist, but even he didn’t predict how much the Russian leader would scramble the Biden administration’s foreign policy agenda.
During Burns’ Senate confirmation hearing in February, he said that, as CIA director, he would have “four crucial and inter-related priorities.” They were: “China, technology, people and partnerships.”
Russia was not on that priorities list. To be fair, few people in Washington were bothered by that at the time. The city was far more obsessed, on a bipartisan basis, with China and its ambitions.
That changed in the latter months of 2021, as Putin amassed troops along Russia’s border with Ukraine in numbers and ways that alarmed US officials. Biden sent Burns to Moscow, where he met Kremlin officials and spoke to Putin via telephoneconveying US concerns about the troop build-up and warning that Moscow would pay a price if it invaded.
As the weeks wore on, Biden administration officials decided to selectively declassify and publicize some US intelligence about the Kremlin’s potential war plans. It was an unusual maneuver that Burns has said was crucial to derailing Putin’s efforts to use disinformation tactics to justify a full-scale war on Ukraine, a country he first invaded in 2014.
Burns declined an interview for this story, but he’s spoken in a variety of public forums since taking the CIA’s helm.
In an appearance at the Financial Times Weekend Festival Earlier this month, Burns said that as the administration was publicly warning that Putin was preparing to invade, he and his colleagues spent “a lot of sleepless nights actually hoping that we were wrong.” But Putin chose to disappoint them.
Even as Burns and his agency try to outmaneuver the Kremlin, the CIA director continues to believe China is the greater long-term geopolitical threat to the United States. The Asian giant, led by Xi Jinping, is “in many ways the most profound test that the CIA has ever faced,” Burns told an audience at Georgia Tech in April.
The communist-led country’s advances in artificial intelligence, economic entanglement with the United States and cyber activity that, among other things, has threatened US federal employee data, are just some of the many reasons the CIA is racing to counter Beijing. It’s harder than ever; the CIA has reportedly seen beijing identify many of its undercover operatives, on top of earlier executing many of its sources in China.
As part of his desire to ensure the CIA’s long-term focus remains on China, Burns has established a China Mission Center, the agency’s only such center focused on a single country. The agency is also increasing its budget for China-related work, and it hopes to double its number of Mandarin-speaking officers.
Burns has also established a Transnational and Technology Mission Center, which is focusing on emerging technologies alongside border-busting challenges such as climate change. Burns named the agency’s first “chief technology officer,” Nand Mulchandani, who has private and public sector experience.
Early in his tenure, Burns ordered that more resources be devoted to understanding the strange health incidents — often called “Havana syndrome” — that have afflicted many CIA officers, US diplomats and other government officials. There have been worries that Russia was behind the incidents and that they involved technology that directed energy at victims. So far, though, US officials say they’ve found no evidence that Moscow is involved.
Still, Burns’ focus on the topic helped endear him to many in the intelligence world.
In fact, it is nearly impossible to find someone in Washington who will criticize Burns, even privately.
“We named an auditorium after the guy, and he’s not even dead,” a State Department official quipped. (The William J. Burns Auditorium is Room 1927 in the department’s Harry S. Truman Building.)
Burns also is often the one in a meeting who puts people at ease with a wry quip. “He sometimes is the person to say, ‘Yeah, this is really hard. And it’s really hard not having perfect answers,’” a former senior Biden administration official said.